Culture Transformation Become a Coach Hire Event Speaker Connect with Us Login

Super Pumped: The History of Uber's Company Culture

There were taxis.

Then, suddenly out of the blue, Uber emerged.

And now it’s as though we can’t recall a time when Uber didn't exist. It’s become so ingrained in people’s daily lives, it seems odd that the company only began just 13 years ago in 2010.

This was a company that grew rapidly. Perhaps, too rapidly for its own good. In 2020, we wrote a blog post on the history of Uber’s company culture - a history so dramatic, it’s now become a Netflix drama titled after one of their core values, “Super Pumped.

While the show has taken some creative liberties, they kept Silicon Valley journalist Mike Isaac, as a fact-checking consultant and producer. Isaac reported on Uber during former CEO & Co-Founder Travis Kalanick’s tenure. Kalanick is the anti-hero of the show, and seemingly, his own career.

Uber’s problematic company culture went public in February of 2017, but they were already defying their own core values long before their defining notoriety (we’ll get to that.)

For example, one of the company’s core values, under the leadership of Kalanick as CEO, was, “Celebrate cities - everything we do is to make cities better.” However, Uber actively avoided confrontation from city officials by employing a technique called “greyballing.” This was a tool that, “used data collected from the Uber app to evade authorities in cities like Boston, Paris, and Las Vegas, as well as countries like China, Australia, and South Korea.” This data collection was greenlighted by Uber’s legal team, but, in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an inquiry into Uber’s data collection.

Simply put, they collected data from the app users to discern if they were a city official. If the system flagged the user as such, their version of Uber was a farce mock-up of the app. The cars heading toward them weren’t depicting actual vehicles, but it’d appear to the user that they simply weren’t catching a ride. It was the perfect disguise, and it worked for years.

Why did they do this? Code enforcement cost the company money. Or, Uber wouldn’t ask the city for permission to begin servicing there, and cities would outlaw the app. This happened in Portland, which is where Uber’s greyball tool was discovered and outed.

However, this scenario is illustrative of how a core value can be adulterated. One of their core values was “toe-stepping,” and it's meant to be an equalizing value, one that levels the playing field for all employees and applies value to their contributions. As Khosrowshahi, current CEO of Uber, wrote in his post, "'toe-stepping' was meant to encourage employees to share their ideas regardless of their seniority or position in the company, but too often it was used as an excuse for being an asshole." In the case of greyballing, “toe-stepping,” became an excuse for infringing on city rights.

But when a CoreVal is too vague and lacks the descriptive behaviors that define the value, it's left open to abuse.

Public perception of Uber’s culture was already plummeting, but it took a sharp downturn in 2017. Susan Fowler, a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) at Uber, exposed the toxic and sexist culture prevailing within the company on her blog.

In this blog, she simply writes an account of what she endured during her time at the company. On her first day, she was sexually harassed by her superior. When she reported this incident to HR, she was advised to change teams to avoid her harasser, who might give her a negative performance review if she stayed.

Her new boss, while not a harasser, failed to offer her the deserved promotion or the leather jacket promised to all SREs, which was given only to men.

Fowler’s concerns were dismissed each time she addressed them with management.

Fowler's subsequent blog post, "A Very, Very Strange Year at Uber," sheds light on the deteriorating representation of women in the organization and the sexist atmosphere. When she started, 25% of employees were women. By the time she left, the female representation had plummeted to just 3%.

This was just months before the #MeToo movement took off. Susan Fowler's accusations in 2017 led to her recognition as one of Time's "silence breakers."

Ironically, one of Uber’s core values at the time was “Principled Confrontation - sometimes the world and institutions need to change in order for the future to be ushered in.”

The final straw came when Uber driver, Kamel, who had been with the company since 2011, confronted CEO Kalanick during a ride. Kamel expressed his frustration about reduced fares that made it difficult for him to earn a decent living. Rather than showing empathy, Kalanick became defensive, and said, ​​“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit… They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

That wasn’t very demonstrative of their core value, “Inspiring leadership.”

Kamel released the dash cam footage to NBC News to highlight Kalanick's lack of concern for the welfare of Uber drivers. Shortly after, shareholders delivered a letter to Kalanick requesting he step down because "the cultural values of Uber need to be transformed to embrace transparency, diversity and social responsibility alongside growth and the bottom line." Kalanick resigned the next day.

Uber's cultural deterioration serves as a quintessential example of the consequences when a company espouses core values but fails to uphold them. When values don't have any substance to inform them, statements like "Always be hustlin,'" and even "Be yourself," can lead a company into a dead end.

Having bad descriptive behaviors can often be as bad as having none. There are one-liners behind each of Kalanick's Uber values, with the description for "toe-stepping" literally dismissing the value of culture. It states, "Don’t sacrifice truth for social cohesion." The result for Uber was a destructive culture and a massive loss of public trust.

Since Kalanick’s departure, Dara Khosrowshahi has taken over as CEO, and he has created a new list of core values with in-depth descriptive behaviors. Here’s an example of how their core value of, “Go get it,” is defined:

 These values and descriptions are excellent, as they are unique, memorable, and clear. However, we think the core value below should be more clearly defined, given the company’s history: 

In April of this year, the Wall Street Journal published a profile on Khosrowshahi moonlighting as an Uber driver and UberEats delivery driver to gain a deeper insight into the driver app's user experience, which he personally deemed "clunky." This experience led him to recognize the validity of many complaints from drivers that the company had been receiving.

If they are in alignment with their value, “Trip obsessed - The earner, rider, eater, carrier and merchant are the people who connect in our marketplace - and we see every side,” they will begin to work on product management.

All in all, it seems the company is making significant strides to bettering their culture, publishing annual People & Culture Reports and transparently sharing them with the public.

In conclusion, the rise and fall of Uber's company culture serve as a stark reminder of the consequences when a company fails to live up to its professed core values. Uber, a company that rapidly grew to become an integral part of people's lives, found itself in turmoil due to a disconnect between its stated values and its actual actions.

Uber's experience underscores the importance of having well-defined core values with clear and meaningful descriptive behaviors to guide a company's culture. Under new leadership, Uber is taking steps to rebuild trust and align its actions with its core values, emphasizing transparency and a deeper understanding of the driver and user experience. The true test lies in their commitment to those values.


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.